That Was Weird

I just had an experience I have never had before- I had to say goodbye to someone knowing full well I will probably never see them again. I’ve never had that before.

My neighbor, Siham Miller, who moved here from Lebanon (she is Syrian and a Christian) with her husband George Miller in 1986, is now in her 80’s, and while still with it (she was always crazy, but she is no crazier now than before), her health has declined so much that her children are moving her to an apartment in Philadelphia. If you remember, it was her sister who I took to all the hospital visits for her tumor. At any rate, we have a long history with them as neighbors to my parents- 1986-2014 is a long time. A lifetime for many.

At any rate, I’m so sick so I couldn’t go down to talk to her because the last damned thing she needs is a cold, so we chatted for a while. I was always her favorite. I still remember her yelling at my dad for yelling at me when I was a teen, and she has never gotten over that and mentioned it tonight (even though she loves my father to death). I also remember when she and George moved next door, for years if someone slammed a door, she would fall to the ground or scurry for cover because she was so terrorized by the gunshots from her experiences in Beirut.

She’s a complicated and difficult woman- I never fully and viscerally understood the Greek mythology of Medea until I saw Siham spending an entire afternoon meticulously spraying who knows what on EVERY SINGLE SLUG on EVERY SINGLE TOMATO PLANT while cackling the whole time and cursing them. Her views on Middle Eastern politics were also complicated, and since she was not internet savvy I would look things up on Syria and talk to her about them. Right now, her heart is just broken with what is going on there.

At any rate, back to the point. I have been very fortunate in that I have never had to be on someone’s deathbed and say goodbye, so I had never contemplated this kind of conversation before. She’s not dying, but we both know we will never see each other again, so the whole conversation was blanketed by this feeling of permanence, and it was sad and happy at the same time.

She was still her cynical self, and I could hear all her kids and grandkids in the background, and she was telling me “I am being kidnapped. Help me! They have taken my car keys, cancelled my credit cards, and are moving me from my home!” In the background, you could hear her kids say “Call the police mom if you are being kidnapped.”

But the thing is, she sounded happier than I have heard her in years. She was just thrilled to be moving to a place where she could be around her kids and grandkids, and while she didn’t want to leave, I felt positive after talking to her.

Funny thing we have going here, us humans.

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72 replies
  1. 1
    raven says:

    Did you ever think you would see Shawn again? Life can be funny like that.

  2. 2
    hitchhiker says:

    That just might be my favorite post you’ve ever written, JC.

    I said goodbye to an old friend 12 days ago, on his deathbed. Every time I go to Michigan to see my mom, we both know the goodbye could be the last one. She’ll be 90 in the fall if she makes it until then. My 23-yr-old daughter joyfully said “see you later!” to one of her best friends last summer, only to get the phone call a few weeks later that he was gone for good, mowed down by an impaired driver on her way to DUI court at 1 in the afternoon.

    You remind me of what I love and what I hate about being, but usually not so much as today.

    Thanks.

  3. 3
    mtiffany says:

    Funny thing we have going here, us humans.

    Ridiculous, in fact. And beautiful, if only because it is so uncertain and short.

  4. 4
    PsiFighter37 says:

    I can’t speak from experience yet, but I can only imagine that the older we get, the more the conversations you have with various people will be the last you ever have with them.

    Sorry, that ain’t exactly uplifting. But at least it sounds like your neighbor is going to be surrounded by her family and loved ones as she enters the last chapters of this life.

  5. 5
    TerryC says:

    Thanks.

  6. 6
    Abo gato says:

    Thank you, John. This is why we love you so much. You are such a HUMAN. At the best.

  7. 7
    raven says:

    @PsiFighter37: I left my unit in Vietnam in 1969. Last May I went to a reunion and saw about 40 guys I thought I’d never see again. Ya never know.

  8. 8
    the Conster says:

    May we all live that long with our faculties to even have that conversation. After watching in horror as Alzheimer’s took my mother away year by year for 12 agonizing years until there was nothing left, I think Siham is very very lucky.

  9. 9
    p.a. says:

    So why the hell couldn’t you go to Philly? See the sights over a long weekend at ask if you could drop by. Are you still on the Atrios Posse hit list?

  10. 10
    raven says:

    @p.a.: That’s what I’m talkin bout!

  11. 11
    JoyfulA says:

    @p.a.: Exactly what I was going to say. What is it? 250 miles? maybe 300?

    Take a couple of days this summer and go visit.

  12. 12
    raven says:

    @p.a.: On the other hand, with his luck, we probably shouldn’t encourage him to leave the city limits!

  13. 13
    Violet says:

    @p.a.: Yeah, I’m wondering that too. Why not go to Philly for a weekend?

    But yeah, you’ll talk about it and it’ll never happen. And then she’ll be gone.

    You’re a good person, John. Love this post. Glad she’s happy. We should all be so lucky in the last chapter of our lives.

  14. 14
    gogol's wife says:

    Very nice post. I wish you’d write a book. Then we could have a book chat about it here.

  15. 15
    april says:

    I flew out to Iowa to say good bye to an old friend that was dying of cancer. I think that we humans have a subconscious trick that buffers us from these experiences. Somehow the full brunt of the experience gets shunted aside for a time when it is safe to really feel. Anyway I could cry about that good by now but when it happened we were both being cheerful and getting through it and all that.

    I’ve said good by enough times now that I don’t take anything for granted. If my husband hops in the car to go to town I say bye casually but in side I’m thinking, “Come back to me. Please. I don’t want today to be the last time I see you. But who says stuff like that? I don’t. I just think it for a moment and then go on with whatever.

  16. 16
    Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN) says:

    I just had an experience I have never had before- I had to say goodbye to someone knowing full well I will probably never see them again. I’ve never had that before.

    I did that earlier this week. It had nothing to do with anyone dying, though. I’ve gotten to know some of the parents of Gopher hockey players and became close with several of this year’s seniors. After we lost on Sunday there was a gathering at a bar in Hamden.

    The parents of players from Minnesota will likely keep coming to games, though not as many. The the Terrys (Toronto), the Gillanders (Kyle, Saskatchewan) and the Davises (Newfoundland) probably won’t; without their kid on the team it’s tough to see making that kind of trip. Brock Gillanders said he’ll try to make it to Grand Forks for our series against North Dakota next year but my hunch is that that’s the kind of thing you say in the moment but it never actually happens.

    I’ll stay in touch with Kathy Terry, since she’s on the distribution list for my stories as I wrote them and she’s agreed to give a hockey insider’s perspective on my novel when the next draft is done. But I probably won’t actually see any of them again. So it’s been a melancholy week.

  17. 17
    Pogonip says:

    John, you’re a nice man.

  18. 18
    RoonieRoo says:

    I’ve had enough good-byes that I didn’t know were last good-byes that Grumpy has to be told I love him and I must have my kiss before he is allowed to go to work. Definitely colored by my life experiences.

    JC, I’m glad that you are able to be aware of that conversation and have it be sweet if bittersweet.

  19. 19
    Fuzzy says:

    This whole goodbye process has been slowed by Facebook. I moved from CT to CA 20 years and have gone back many times but now due to unforseen health problems I cannot make the trip so my conversations are via social media. The old gang keeps in much closer touch this way than we ever did by phone or email, even finding out some new things from long ago. “The green green grass of home”.

  20. 20
    raven says:

    Governor Ton’s o Fun is at da game!

  21. 21
    Jane2 says:

    @p.a.: First he has to get a vehicle. That decision could take years.

  22. 22
    Comrade Mary says:

    Sorry, I asked this in Richard’s thread below, but this seems to be the active one.

    I just found out a family friend in Colorado was in a bad accident. Don’t know what insurance he carries as a self-employed person or what costs he’s accrued already for the current hospital stay. Does he stand a chance of enrolling before the deadline and getting coverage for the ongoing care he’ll need?

  23. 23
    raven says:

    @Comrade Mary: It’s not funny but that’s what the right-wing idiots on the radio were claiming in the lead up to the ACA. “People will get hurt and then sing up”! I don’t really know the answer.

  24. 24
    SteveinSC says:

    At some time in our life we begin to face the dark that is ahead, we start to understand the true enormity of just moving along in time and that we will part with everyone and everything. Memento mori.

  25. 25
    raven says:

    @SteveinSC: But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now!

  26. 26
    Tokyokie says:

    When I moved back to the States about a year after getting married, the neighbor who had lived in the house behind ours (back when nobody had fences to separate the yards) when I was a lad sent us a belated wedding present, a blanket depicting all the prominent sites of the town where I grew up. At that time, the cancer that she’d fought a few years before had returned, and I wrote her a long thank-you letter, not just for the blanket, but for being a wonderful neighbor for such a long time. Not quite the same thing as Cole today, but close enough. She died before the next time we got up that way to see my mother.

    We visited my mom on the only weekend my stepfather wasn’t in the hospital the last couple of months of his life, thinking it might be the last chance to see him. When we went out for lunch at the country club on Sunday, lots of well-wishers who hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, came and exchanged pleasantries, and I noticed he was tearing up. He knew it would be the last time he saw them. I chose to ignore his feelings and act as though everything was normal. Which isn’t the same thing at all, even if I knew it was.

  27. 27
    WaterGirl says:

    @Comrade Mary: Since the enrollment period is ending in just a couple of days, I would click on Richard Mayhew’s name at the top of the blog and send him an actual email message.

  28. 28
    Comrade Mary says:

    @WaterGirl: D’oh — will do, thanks!

  29. 29
    Ruckus says:

    John
    I’ve had to say goodbye to many people over the years, and missed the chance with many others. Doing it often doesn’t make it better it just makes it a little more understandable. What it does do is make it a little less surprising, which somehow seems to help. Maybe it has made me a little cynical if anything. I’m still here and they aren’t. And that goes as well for friends that I used to talk to every day and now they rarely even respond on FB. Maybe it’s me. On the other hand I’ve connected with people that I haven’t seen or talked to in decades so there is that.

  30. 30
    Mister Papercut says:

    There will be many more where that came from, and I hope that none gut me more than my first and, so far, only. Five years ago, I went back to College Town for the first time in many years for my fraternity’s spring banquet. Hoped to catch up with one of my little brothers (this was a co-ed fraternity, BTW) who, while finishing her doctorate, I knew was having health issues but I was too timid to pry on Facebook. I make it into College Town on Friday night, and literally within minutes of meeting up with a group of fellow old-timers, I learned that her condition was terminal, but I wouldn’t have known it when I and my own big brother in the fraternity went to visit her on Sunday.

    She was totally her old cheerful self, holding court, just like old times, but confined to a hospital bed. She made everyone at peace because she was clearly at peace — which came naturally anyway, as she had not one cynical, drama-seeking bone in her body — but I still couldn’t reconcile that it was real. But it was indeed real, and she was okay.

    Of course, I wasn’t okay. It’s never okay for the most accomplished woman I’d ever have the privilege to know to be taken at 35.

    She was gone within two weeks.

    Her memorial service in College Town was held the day before commencement.

  31. 31
    Barry Freed says:

    I rarely comment here but I read pretty regularly and I just want to say that you’re a pretty wonderful human being, John Cole.

  32. 32
    The Bobs says:

    I have stage 4 cancer, so now when I run into old friends they aren’t sure whether to treat the meeting as though it may be our last. It’s not bad for me, but very awkward for them. For me now, every meeting with people I see only rarely is treated as though it may be the last. It’s very strange, like a blank future.

  33. 33
    raven says:

    @The Bobs: It’s similar to how difficult it is for people to deal with someone who has just lost a loved one.

  34. 34
    gogol's wife says:

    @The Bobs:

    You sound like a brave man.

  35. 35
    Scott Alloway says:

    @Pogonip: I so agree. John Cole: I hope you come to realize what a decent, compassionate, caring man you are. I love your writing and look forward to reading your posts. Your pains, joys, gains and happiness touch many of us. Long life to you. And when you come to Philly, we’ll take you out. Hell, I moved here from Maine at 31 and survived, and I’m 63.

  36. 36
    Barbara says:

    @Comrade Mary: Have your friend ask the hospital social worker — if the SW isn’t able to help, she might be able to point your friend in the right direction. It’s to the hospital’s advantage if their patients are covered, after all.

  37. 37
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @gogol’s wife:

    I agree. I’ve thought for a long time that John should put together a book, a compilation on the lines of The Best of Balloon Juice — including the political/social progression from conservative to wild-eyed DFH; the awesomest rants; pets (of course); some of the truly funny shit like mopping naked, or the Balloon Boy thread; and some heartstring-tuggers, like this post and the one last night on Shanesha Taylor. Maybe ask each regular FPer to contribute one post apiece from their own favourite submissions, to be gathered in an appendix or as interludes (music, recipes, gardening, being black, science for smart folks and dummies alike, health care, FIFA, being a wild old woman — the list is endless). Throw a photo of Tunch on the cover and just watch those books jump off the shelf.*

    Would need some editing, but I seriously think there might be a niche market for this kind of book even beyond the regular BJ community. I mean, if Allie Brosh and Randall Munroe can turn their blogs into actual books, why can’t John Cole?

    * I am aware that the words “Tunch” and “jump” rarely appear in close proximity in the same sentence.

  38. 38
  39. 39
    John Cole says:

    @The Bobs: It’s just the awkwardness. You just don’t know what to say. And dealing with someone else’s mortality and watching someone you love die makes you think about your own mortality. And then there is the feeling of just wanting to say the right thing. This might be the last time I see this person? What do you even talk about? Have I made sure I said I love him or her?

    What are you supposed to say? I suppose you are to try to act normal, but how can you?

    And I am so sorry about your diagnosis. Take care, brother.

  40. 40
    raven says:

    @John Cole: You talk about what you always would have talked about. It’s your presence that is what it important.

  41. 41
    Citizen_X says:

    @gogol’s wife:

    I wish you’d write a book.

    Why? It’ll SUCK, and be TOO SHORT!!!

    JK. Lovely post, John.

  42. 42
    Citizen_X says:

    @The Bobs: Here’s to you! (Raises bottle.)

  43. 43
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @april:

    My former carpool passenger, ever since he got married, does a thing with his wife every time he leaves in the morning or to run an errand, even every time they talk on the phone — the last thing they say to each other is “I love you.” It could be a rote thing and kind of stupid, but with them it’s not. They are both really committed to the idea of always leaving love as the last message they hear from each other.

    One night we were heading home from work and Kevin made his usual “I’m-on-the-way” phone call, very boring, about what’s for dinner and getting an oil change and similar mundane domestic stuff. He hung up without saying “I love you.” I said, “Kevin, don’t you love Julie any more?” He immediately burst out laughing. It’s a good thing I was driving, because he would have gone off the road he was laughing so hard.

    Then he redialled, said “I love you,” and hung up.

  44. 44
    raven says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris If this is Goodbye was inspired by the people that made phone calls from the plane’s on 9/11.

    My famous last words
    Are laying around in tatters
    Sounding absurd whatever I try
    But I love you and that’s all that really matters

    If this is good bye
    If this is good bye

    Your bright shining sun
    Would light up the way before me
    You were the one made me feel I could fly
    And I love you whatever is waiting for me

    If this is good bye
    If this is good bye

    Who knows how long we’ve got
    Or what were made out of
    Who knows if there’s a plan or not
    There is our love, I know there is our love

    My famous last words could never tell the story
    Spinning unheard in the dark of the sky
    But I love you and this is our glory

    If this is good bye
    If this is good bye
    If this is good bye
    If this is good bye

  45. 45
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @raven:

    Shanesha Taylor tally? That’s fucking wonderful. She should be able to afford an apartment and daycare — which is to say, the peace of mind she needs to apply for an hold a job.

    Awesome. Thanks for the update.

  46. 46
  47. 47
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @raven:

    That’s lovely. Kevin and his wife got married just two months after 9/11, and it may be that they were inspired to do their own ritual by those phone calls, which were still very raw and recent for everyone at the time.

  48. 48
    Daffodil's Mom says:

    I’ve had that saying good-bye experience repeatedly, with the same person. A favorite aunt had terminal cancer for many, many years and every year when I came to visit, we’d say our good-byes until finally we actually started joking about it. It didn’t make it any easier losing her but it did make me more comfortable putting together what I want to say to a person in situations like that.

    It must be a strange experience, The Bobs, seeing that you’re the one at peace and wondering about them wondering about you. May things go well for you; I think your grace under pressure has made a difference in several lives her tonight.

  49. 49
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    Yeah, cause you sure as fuck ain’t gonna go visit her.

  50. 50
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    And just FUCK. In keeping with the thread.

    Pretty sure I’ve mentioned my elderly cousin whose son died at age 53 about 16 months ago, and then her husband died very suddenly last summer. Anyhow, I just got a phone call from her daughter, the one remaining member of her family. Elderly cousin is in hospital with possible heart attack; she’s also had several nasty falls over the last few weeks, and every time she takes a tumble, another vertebra crumples. Not a close relative (third cousin once removed) but someone I have come to know well and admire very much. I don’t like to think about the possibility of having to say another goodbye quite this soon.

  51. 51
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @The Bobs:

    You are an exemplar of grace and clear-sightedness. I wish you only the very best.

  52. 52
    Miki says:

    Comtrol P, honey.

    With maybe a hand-written note scrawled with those meathooks and pics of your furkids, especially Steve.

    ‘Taint that difficult if’n that’s what you want to do.

  53. 53
    gogol's wife says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    I was actually thinking of his writing a whole book start to finish — not an anthology. But that could be good too.

  54. 54
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @gogol’s wife:

    Well, chances are most of what he’d write from scratch has already shown up on BJ in one form or another. But I know where you’re coming from.

  55. 55
    Drunken hausfrau says:

    Thank you John Cole….et al. This is the most human place on the internets…

  56. 56
    burnspbesq says:

    Timely. Lost a sibling yesterday, unexpectedly, to complications of a cancer we thought was in remission. No idea what I’m feeling, or whether it’s what I’m “supposed” to feel. There’s just this huge hole where a person I love used to be.

  57. 57
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @burnspbesq: My condolences. I can’t imagine what that would feel like.

  58. 58
    Aleta says:

    I’ve had some neighborhood friends in their 80’s, even 90’s (all gone now). It made me think about how hard it must be, at that age, to be losing one old friend after another. I remember one woman saying “I’ve been going to a friend’s funeral every week for the last month.”

    I remember when my neighbor across the street had just turned 90. I told her that someone else I knew had just turned 80. And she said (I kid you not), “Oh, the 80s. Those were good years.” She was great. I miss her. She made crabapple jelly from her tree.

  59. 59
    Steeplejack says:

    @burnspbesq:

    Damn, sorry to hear that. My condolences to you and your family.

  60. 60
    satby says:

    @burnspbesq: so sorry burnspbesq.

  61. 61
    Jay says:

    This was a nice post.

    I really don’t want to sound dickish, but…no chance Mrs. Miller & co. would be up for calls or letters? Don’t shut that door if you can help it, Mr. Cole.

  62. 62
    dman says:

    Remember that feeling. I was lucky enough to have been bedside with gramps in the hospital when he passed away from a heart attack. He was 87 and the single most influential person in my life. I will always remember the feel of loss but at the same time serenity knowing he was gone and could finally be free of this place.

    Remember the good times and they’ll last forever

  63. 63
    Violet says:

    @burnspbesq: So very sorry. Condolences on your loss. Be kind to yourself as you navigate this unexpected loss.

  64. 64
    seaboogie says:

    @Ruckus: Did you really mean “cynical”? It usually means regarding one’s own interests to the detriment of others, or distrustful of human sincerity. Surely politics will get you in that state of mind, but the goodbyes that we must bid, as they pile up over the years, make me feel anything but cynical. Rather, I find myself feeling so much more compassionate (even towards those who would make me cynical) as we all struggle in our lives, until we bid our final adieu. And hopefully we live our lives in such a way that there are those we have loved and befriended who help us shuffle off this mortal coil, as we all must do.

  65. 65
    John Cole says:

    @burnspbesq: I’m sorry, brother.

  66. 66
    Irony Abounds says:

    Great post. I’ve always thought about doing things for the last time in various and somewhat random ways. Going to my kids’ sporting events for the last time, driving a car I’m trading in for the last time, moving out of a dorm room, apartment or house, and other oddball things like that always leave me with an odd feeling for a while. I remember when my oldest daughter went to her last day at Gymboree (she had reached the age limit). We both knew it was her last day, and not only was it a bittersweet moment for me, I could tell she was thinking about it being her last time while going through each routine one last time. Obviously these are not huge events, but finality in even minor things seems to have an effect on me that I don’t quite understand.

  67. 67
    seaboogie says:

    @burnspbesq: So sorry to hear of your loss. Grief is surreal, and takes you to a place that you have never known – even if you have known it before, each connection and loss is unique. The only thing that I have to offer you is that in grief there is a gift, and that gift is one that allows us to dwell in our deepest and most heartfelt places, and also allows us – in time – to connect in a more meaningful and understanding way with others who have borne the experience. It’s just hard, though – and very disorienting. Whatever you are feeling or not feeling – it is a normal part of this experience.

  68. 68
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Funny thing we have going here, us humans.

    Sixty years and counting on this planet, and the longer I live, the more sure I am that I don’t have a clue what’s going on with this life.

    I’m good with that.

  69. 69
    brendancalling says:

    yo, if you ever want to visit your friend here in Philly, I have a guest room. Plus, you could visit with Atrios, Booman, Noz, and the rest of the old Philly left-wing blog crowd. Just sayin’.

  70. 70
    Lavocat says:

    Write a book already, goddammit!

    I’m sure you have a good half-dozen in you at least.

  71. 71
    LT says:

    Nice post, John. Weird thing, indeed.

  72. 72
    LT says:

    @burnspbesq: Fuck. So sorry.

Comments are closed.